It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the worship of the Christian church.
Some changes have been good, with livestream options bringing people together for worship and virtual choirs singing forth a message that now reaches beyond the doors of the church.
However, the pandemic also brought to light the weaknesses of worship, including the need to reevaluate how we introduce, deal with and process the difficult issues of social and racial justice.
During the pandemic, our churches were made painfully aware of the social injustices in our country and of the killing of people of color.
The worshippers in our pews wanted answers, they wanted comfort, they wanted advice and they wanted hope and healing. Unfortunately, our worship services did not always provide those elements, and clergy were not always equipped to handle such situations.
As a result, many churches have been hindered in the work they had been doing on issues of race and justice, and some faith communities have been divided in ways that may be irreparable.
In seminary, I was taught that worship is not always supposed to be comfortable. Instead, it should, like the psalms, reflect all forms of human emotion and experience.
Sometimes worship should be challenging, calling us to look at ourselves and others in new and enlightening ways. However, we must not forget that worship is also supposed to nourish, sustain and teach.
When worship is hijacked to prove a point and/or to push what some may see as a “political agenda” (no matter how well intentioned or gospel-centered), congregations tend to shut down and worship then ceases to be worship.
Clergy are often able to look at a church with “outside eyes” and see things about the congregation’s past and present that are unhealthy and/or need improvement. The congregation’s current approach to social and racial justice is often part of what clergy uncover.
In an effort to do good work, some ministers will preach a “heavy-handed” sermon or include a pointed litany in a worship service with hopes of provoking positive change or at least thoughtful introspection and meaningful dialogue. Instead, their efforts are often met with resistance and sometimes even volatile responses.
Clergy, with even the best of intentions, may confront an issue in worship without realizing that some in the congregation don’t even realize there is a problem, or that others come at an issue from a completely different perspective.
Such instances can cause a worship service to feel disjointed, unauthentic and hostile. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Imagine that there is a clergyperson serving a congregation in the south that has little or no history of addressing matters related to racial justice. Violence and unrest in the community has inspired the pastor to address the issue in various ways within the life of the church, including worship.
Rather than jumping right into the topic in a sermon, the pastor decides to invite a survivor of a racially motivated attack to speak to the church at a Wednesday night dinner program during Black History Month.
The following week, the pastor facilitates a discussion of the speaker’s words and poses questions that encourage the people to look inwardly at themselves and at the history of the congregation.
The pastor then asks the people to help craft a liturgy from their findings that could be used in an upcoming worship service. The liturgy is created using their words, realizations and hopes.
When the liturgy is used in worship, the congregation takes ownership of it, and it prepares them for the additional work that needs to be done. They are not told how horrible or wrong they are, but rather, they are invited along for a journey.
Liturgy means “work of the people,” and it is exactly that – work carried out by the community!
Just as a good teacher prepares a lesson in order to set their students up for success, pastors and worship leaders must labor to lay theological groundwork in order for the issues they feel are important to take root and grow within the liturgical lives of their congregations.
Planning should be a staple of worship, but worship planning takes on an entirely new life when a congregation desires that worship be a vehicle to bring about awareness and change.
The implementation of topics and elements must be strategic, prayerfully orchestrated and meticulously evaluated for effectiveness.
May we all be willing to do a little more work, to be a little more humble and to invite others to join us on the journey of good work and justice.